Haggard and ripe after driving fourteen hours from their last gig, Jeb Mann stood at a battered card table, counting out money into five piles. A wedge of jet-black hair hung over his tired eyes. The others unloaded two rented panel trucks of gear into his garage. He had booked them into a dozen liberal arts colleges from Walla Walla to Grinnell and a few bars in between. The tour had only taken three weeks, but it was the fifth one that year, and Jeb’s girlfriend had had it. In their bedroom her half of the closet was empty and her bookshelf cleared. The espresso machine was gone. He stood in the living room, where CDs and vinyl were fanned across the floor, their joint collection, picked through, diminished. Also the cat had weighed in. Regurgitated Friskies were splattered across The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. And she had taken a shit on the bed.
He sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee from the French press. It was late November and cold, cold, cold. Out the window of his little house, he stared at bare branches, black against a gray sky. All around him light from other people’s windows glowed softly through the pearled late afternoon. The house sounded as it did when he was home alone. Overtones in the stillness, a ringing that accompanied the ambient notes of his footsteps, of his cup against the table, the refrigerator cycling on and off, the cat’s muffled landing on the rug from her perch on the back of the sofa, where she watched the front yard and sidewalk. She jumped into his lap and he petted her absently. She was purring now, a warm thrum against his thigh.
He thought it was much easier for his girlfriend. Mel was a pediatrician and had always known what she wanted. The path forward for her had been clear. His want, he thought, was harder. It felt like restlessness, demanding his attention, compelling him to try one thing, then another. Each decision brought vague hopefulness, but the relief from being in motion dissipated quickly as he lived each choice.
He had spent the year piling on choices. Touring with Family of Mann. Saying yes to every gig offered as a sideman. Studio work. Benefit concerts. After a show women came around, attracted to his work, knowing nothing about him. He came home at all hours, in need of a bath, or sleep, or food. Or to crank up some trancey come-down music and sit on the couch with a beer, too spent to really talk.
I’m working late tonight, said Mel three weeks ago, right before the band left. He had nodded distractedly. He was working on a chart, a new song for the tour. And your mother called. She wants us to come down for Thanksgiving. It was a love song, tear me up take me down, sliding through the usual three chords, verse chorus, verse chorus, but the ending would be a coda, all instrumental and twice as long, one long, crazy guitar solo. Hello in there! He looked up. He smiled, his head to the side. He showed her, in that instant, the sweetness on which hung great promise when they first started. Mel ran her hand over his cheek. She looked sad.
The cat jumped off, stretched, and ambled back to the living room. Where she had sat on his lap, a spot of warmth, which had somehow radiated to every part of him, now cooled at an alarming rate.
His plan for the holiday was to get Szechuan takeout and a six-pack of dank IPA, and binge-watch Battlestar Galactica.
That’s ridiculous, said his sister, Clare. That’s the kind of plan that sounds good now but by midmorning you’ll be lonely, bored, and depressed. Come home, Jeb.
I am home, he said.
You know what I mean. Mom and Dad will be thrilled.
He made that long-note sound, lilting up at the end.
Overreach, she laughed. Okay. But it’s Thanksgiving. You know they want us to be together.
He dumped the contents of his touring duffel on the floor and repacked with some underwear and a couple Tshirts. The cat leapt onto the bed and sat at the edge of the duffel, erect, her tail wrapped elegantly around her front paws. She seemed impervious. Right, he said, what do I do with you? He had had the kitten only a few days before he met Mel at a party. She was exhausted from her last year of residency. He was home briefly between tours. The next night he made dinner for her. He tossed a salad with the kitten sitting on his shoulder, nestled against his neck. He had a house and a kitten and he cooked. It took time for her to understand that he had just gotten the cat, that he didn’t know how to care for it, that he was rarely home, and that he had cooked to court her.
He had been driving for hours, with intense concentration, through an unremitting curtain of tule fog. He pulled into a rest area and followed the signs that advertised free coffee. An old guy sat behind a card table, wearing fingerless gloves and a watch cap. He greeted Jeb, Hey, Skip, and passed over a Styrofoam cup of weak brew. Help yourself, he said, gesturing to packets of creamer and sugar and a jumbo tray of off-brand sandwich cookies. He sized up Jeb’s tats and hardware and nail polish and asked, You a musician?
Yeah, me too. Or was, anyway. What’s your band?
Family of Mann.
Oh, yeah, I’ve heard of you.
Jeb doubted that but asked back, and when the guy answered he thought, Holy shit, which he may have said out loud.
And now you’re passing out coffee on the 5?
The guy gave a little nod. Yeah, well, the road is long and hard.
He opened a fresh package of cookies and pushed it toward Jeb.
Steam from the hot coffee condensed on the windshield. He unwrapped a sandwich and shoved bits of bologna and cheese through the squares on the door of the carrier. The cat gulped the food with violent up-and-down bobs of her head, like a metal-band front man, and then purred while she licked Jeb’s thumb and finger.
The fog was still thick and then the rain hit. He had his windshield wipers on and was moving slowly, following the taillights of the car in front of him, the only thing he could see in any detail. A 4X4 sped by in the fast lane, with outsized tires and headlights mounted high on the roof. It sprayed his windshield. The sound hit hard, a scattered blast. He winced. Fear, a cold spike, radiated from his chest down his arms. His hands shook. Fucker, he muttered.
Clare opened the passenger-seat door. She had waited up for him. Everyone else was asleep. She looked good. Her hair, and that sweater.
My cat, he said.
You know Dad’s allergic.
I’ll keep her in my room. He won’t even know.
He’s allergic, Jeb.
He woke to the cat lying against his cheek, purring. Clare had brought bowls to his room, and he filled them with food and water and sat on the floor a while, listening to the shuffle and crunch of the cat, eating.
The kitchen was steamy and clattery.
There you are! His mother hugged him, leaving an imprint of flour on his black Tshirt. Get some coffee. She pointed to the pot, her finger encrusted with pie dough. He sat at the table with his father and brother-in-law.
Here, his father said, sliding a knife toward him and gesturing toward the mound of apples. Peel, core, and slice. Where’s Mel?
Jeb sipped coffee. We’re…he hesitated…taking a break.
His father’s silence always hit hard.
His brother-in-law snorted, You mean she ditched your sorry ass.
Language, said his mother, rolling pie dough and swishing hair out of her eyes.
I mean, said Jeb, we’re taking a break.
It’s okay, son. It’s good to see you, said his father.
Peter and Angie and the kids are coming in later, said his mother. And all the McDonalds, even Stew. And the babies.
His sister put a scone in front of him. Sweet potato-cardamon, she said and laid her hand gently on his shoulder.
He volunteered to go with Clare to the store. They took the list from their mother, and their father stood up, pulling out his wallet.
No, Dad, said Clare. It’s all right, we’ve got it.
No, no. Their father shook his head, frowning. And then he froze a moment, took a huge, deep breath, and twisted away from the table, exuding a massive sneeze.
You coming down with something? their mother asked.
I don’t think so, he said, a look of mild confusion on his face.
The McDonalds arrived in three batches, armed with babies and a rank of children like Russian nesting dolls. The children flowed around him with hugs for his father and mother, his sister and brother-in-law. Easy chatter amongst the adults, and then lilting tones turning toward Jeb. It’s been too long! You look great! He did not know them. He wasn’t sure he ever had. His brother arrived with his four children and Clare’s kids. It was clear that the cousins had frequent sleepovers. It unsettled him, this closeness of which he had been unaware.
He sat on the porch with his brother-in-law, taking a breather. He watched while his brother-in-law smoked, his practiced gestures seeming luxurious.
I’ve always envied smokers, said Jeb. It looks so reliably peaceful.
Until you try to quit, said his brother-in-law. Here comes trouble, he added, stabbing out half his smoke.
Hi, Uncle Jeb. His niece came right to him and squeezed herself next to him in the Adirondack chair. Jeb put his arm around her.
Daddy, you’re not supposed to smoke.
I know, baby. I think that’s my last one.
That’s what he always says, she explained.
She was studying Jeb’s hand, tracing the metallic-purple nail polish with her finger.
Bobby said maybe you’re trans, she said matter-of-factly.
His brother-in-law snorted.
Why would you think that? asked Jeb.
Because your nail polish, she answered. Again, no valance, just simple fact.
Oh, he said. No, I’m not trans. The polish is for when I’m on stage, under lights, so you could see my fingers better on the fretboard. It looks cool, seeing them move around really fast.
It was quiet for a moment. Then she said, Okay, slid out of the chair, and walked back into the house.
Jeb looked at his brother-in-law, who just shook his head, smiling.
Fourth grade, he said. Her brother’s in seventh.
Board games were underway. The youngest cousins played Candyland. His father and brother and the older cousins were playing Dominion. They had just finished one game and were starting another.
Deal you in? asked his father.
Maybe later, he said.
It’s a good game, his father said, coaxing mildly, smiling at Jeb with red-rimmed eyes.
In the kitchen his mother and sister were cooking cranberry sauce with cinnamon and pear and star-anise.
Taste this, said his mother, cupping the spoon under his chin like a priest offering the Eucharist.
Wow, Mom, that’s good.
Yeah, it’s your sister’s recipe.
Always sharing the glory, he thought.
Good one, sis, he said.
Clare smiled to herself.
I mean it, he added.
He took a beer from the fridge and sat at the table. His mother and sister moved on to sweet potatoes, beating in butter and vanilla and orange zest. He listened to the low whine of the mixer and the women’s chat, the rattle of dice from the living room, the clicking of game pieces, his father’s throat-clearing and occasional cough.
Hey, he said to Clare. You’ll never guess what your daughter asked me.
He helped set the table, he and a brigade of cousins, elementary school-age, exacting and particular. It had been a long time since he had been so corrected. They jostled him, and reached around him, and admonished him, none higher than his waist.
His father carved the turkey, and it seemed each time he asked, Light or dark, was punctuated with a little cough and then interspersed with a familiar, alarming wheeze.
Honey…his mother questioned, the look on her face seriously concerned.
His father looked back at her, bewildered. He took two sharp breaths, labored. He dropped the carving knife and fork, put his hands on the edge of the table, and lowered himself into a rigid sit, leaning forward, head down, fighting for breath.
Peter, his mother intoned, alerting his brother, and with that the three of them—his mother, brother, and sister—moved together in an intimate dance. His brother was on his knees in front of their father, coaching him to remain calm, to concentrate on strong, deep breaths. His father shifted his eyes to the right so as to lock onto his son’s. There was one almost imperceptible nod between father and son, a latching-on, as a dangling climber might grasp the extended hand of his rescuer. His father’s head rose and fell with each desperate breath. His sister reentered the room—she had left and now returned. His mother reached back to receive the inhaler from his sister as if accepting the baton in a relay race. His brother had opened their father’s shirt and unbuttoned the top of his pants. He was cooing, beseeching him to stay calm, while their mother squeezed bursts from the inhaler into their father’s mouth. Her face was a mask of concentration, a willful display of reassurance that belied her fear. His father’s breaths were short, shallow, and quick. You’re not getting enough in, coached his mother. The panic in his father’s eyes intensified, and then he was on the ground, rolling from his back to his side, the fight for each breath so intense that every muscle, every rib, was in sharp relief, as if someone was pulling his skin taut from behind. His belly sunk below his ribcage, deeper than any belly should be, as if his organs had been hollowed out, and there was only empty space where there was once the center of a man. Ragged squawks, one after another, a too-long cadenza, terrifying and wrong. His sister, standing with her back to the rest of them, emanated a kind of force field, a command that everyone else remain absolutely still. Jeb could smell the fear. The youngest children leaned into their parents. A baffled quiet had settled over the group, their concentration trained on his father, their collective will to let him breathe. And then a distant whine. The ambulance—someone had called an ambulance. Maybe his sister when she left to retrieve the inhaler.
He stayed at the house. Peter had followed the ambulance with their mother. The McDonalds packed themselves into the three minivans and left. His sister was putting away food. His brother-in-law was washing dishes. Jeb carried things from the dining room to the kitchen.
Clare stood in front of the open refrigerator, holding a plastic container with her back to him, and said, You need to take the cat and go.
His brother-in-law turned off the water and leaned against the sink, his head cocked, not saying anything.
It’s not the cat, said Jeb. Dad has asthma.
He has asthma, yes, she said, and he’s allergic to cats. You know this. The asthma makes it worse.
Jeb had been carrying in the large salad bowl. Now he held it against his belly, shifting his weight to one leg, his hip against the kitchen island. The fingers of his right hand worried the rim of the bowl.
His brother-in-law had been listening and now turned toward him. In a low growl he asked, You brought your cat?
She’s in my room. I never let her out. She was nowhere near him.
What the fuck were you thinking?
Clare stood between them, eyes downcast. Jeb turned toward her and it made her look up. Jeb pleaded, You told me to come.
I know, she said.
Oh, so now it’s her fault, his brother-in-law butted in.
Jeb was furious, this attack coming out of nowhere. He leveled eyes with his brother-in-law and spat, I’m sorry I even came!
His brother-in-law looked stunned for a moment, his mouth open. Then he narrowed his eyes and set his jaw. Now you’re getting it, he said.
It sounded cold and mean. Jeb had no comeback. The two men glared at one another, Jeb breathing hard, his brother-in-law still, distant, as if seeing something for the first time.
Stop, said Clare to her husband. Just stop. It’s no one’s fault.
Really? You sure about that? He said it as he turned away from Jeb.
Jeb tossed the duffel onto the bed. The cat mewled, locked in her carrier. He grasped the handle of the cage and lifted it roughly, with a cruel snap of the wrist. He was irritated. He didn’t think he should have to leave. He could feel the weight shift as the cat thumped against the wall of the carrier. There was a light tap at the door. Yeah, he said. Clare came in. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it for a moment, taking him in. I’m sorry, she said. In his mind she was apologizing for her husband’s rough treatment of him. Standing beside the bed, the cat carrier in one hand, the other resting against his worn duffel, he felt vindicated. She hugged him and, with his free hand, he held her tight for a moment.
Patricia Contaxis’ work has appeared in Wrath-Bearing Tree, The Pluralist, San Antonio Review, Rivanna Review, and Notes from the Seashore. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Sarah Lawrence College and a master’s degree in counseling psychology. Retired after more than thirty years as a marriage and family therapist, she now spends her time on Trail Patrol with the National Park Service, and on Hawkwatch with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. Patricia also enjoys playing mandolin and fiddle with her band, and wandering the coastal hills with her family, their very good boy, and a pair of 8×42 field glasses.